Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) told her social media followers earlier this week that Democrats in Congress might respond to the Capitol riot with some sort of “media literacy” initiative.
The phrase media literacy ordinarily implies helping individuals make sense of the media landscape, but AOC seems to have more in mind than that: She suggested “we’re going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment so that you can’t just spew disinformation and misinformation.”
It’s true that both traditional media and social media sometimes spread “disinformation and misinformation.” But the federal government has no formal role to play in suppressing its spread. The First Amendment explicitly bars Congress from infringing on freedom of the press or freedom of speech, and the Supreme Court has recognized no exceptions for disinformation. If the government could ban disinformation, after all, it could use that as a cover for banning speech that is not actually false but merely critical of the government, or of specific politicians. Recall that Democrats swiftly denounced The New York Post‘s report on Hunter Biden’s foreign connections as “disinformation,” even though many underlying aspects of the story have since been confirmed.
Today’s cancel culture is a prime example of one of several highly influential instruments of social control outside the state. Many libertarians fall prey to the temptation of brushing aside the importance of cultural institutions and non-state means of social control because they don’t violate the non-aggression principle.
Progressives, however, have long recognized the importance of non-state foundations of social order, including public opinion. One can readily recognize today’s “organs” that form the “rallying point of public opinion”: academia, the mainstream corporate media, social media outrage mobs, and – to a growing extent – corporate boardrooms.
Today, the biggest threat to free speech and expression is coming not from the government but from “cancel culture.” The fact that this threat is not coming from the government should serve as a lesson that libertarians who turn a blind eye to non-state sources of social control do so at their own peril.
The First Amendment principles that apply to prior restraints are straightforward. While any effort to censor by punishing a speaker after the fact is likely to violate the First Amendment, preventing the speech ahead of time is even more likely to violate the Constitution, even where the anticipated speech is profoundly offensive and hateful. Central to the ACLU’s mission is the understanding that if the government can prevent lawful speech because it is offensive and hateful, then it can prevent any speech that it dislikes. In other words, the power to censor Nazis includes the power to censor protesters of all stripes and to prevent the press from publishing embarrassing facts and criticism that government officials label as “fake news.” Ironically, Skokie’s efforts to enjoin the Nazi demonstration replicated the efforts of Southern segregationist communities to enjoin civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King during the 1960s.
A study by leading education focused think tank Civitas has found that free speech at the world’s leading universities is being eroded at an alarming rate owing to the rise of “cancel culture”.
The study found that within the past three years, more than 68 per cent of universities in the UK have seen free speech severely restricted, with academics unable to meaningfully discuss the nuances of issues such as race and gender.
The report notes that universities including Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews, three of the world’s premiere institutions are among those that have fallen into a “red” category for free speech following instances of “no platforming” of scheduled speakers.
The study warns that the situation has gotten so severe that it requires government legislation to stop campus censorship at 48 universities, the equivalent of at least 35 per cent of institutions.
The welding of American politics with social media may be the defining moment of a sea change that is taking place at the very top echelons of power in the United States and the world. In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. elections, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all revealed their inescapable ties to the establishment when they launched an information warfare campaign against their own users and content creators in a bid to shape perceptions and control national discourse on the government’s behalf.
As the most contentious election in living memory drags on days after the vote, itself, the massive purge of profiles and content deemed politically dangerous carried out by the most popular social media platforms just over two weeks before Election Day, went practically unnoticed by everyone other than those who were actually de-platformed and their followers.
In mid-October, Google-owned YouTube and other social media giants purged the accounts of the most popular QAnon channels, spurring a class-action lawsuit against the video streaming platform filed in the Northern District of California later that month.